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Sunwolves crushed in Super Rugby opener

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

The Sunwolves were handed a rude welcome to their second Super Rugby season with an 83-17 thrashing by the defending champion Hurricanes on Saturday.

The Sunwolves went into the game at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground looking for a positive start to their second season in the Southern Hemisphere’s top club rugby competition after posting a debut record of one win, one draw and 13 losses.

But New Zealand’s Hurricanes proved far too strong for the Japanese side to handle, scoring 13 tries to the Sunwolves’ three — courtesy of fullback Riaan Viljoen, substitute Shokei Kin and No. 8 Willie Britz — to leave new Sunwolves head coach Filo Tiatia with plenty to work on.

“Obviously the Hurricanes are the reigning champions and it was a tough old day at the office,” said New Zealander Tiatia. “But what I was really pleased about was that the players didn’t give up.

“The reality is we’ve been together for 18 days and we’re trying to improve. I thought our set piece and scrum were very good and at times we put the Hurricanes under pressure. We managed to score three tries against a very, very good defensive team. I am happy with parts of the game and there are parts of the game that we need to improve pretty quickly.”

The Sunwolves — featuring 12 Super Rugby debutants — looked to be heading toward a competition-record defeat when the Hurricanes — featuring six All Blacks — opened the second half with six tries in the space of 20 minutes.

But the home side stopped the rot by holding the visitors scoreless for the final 20 minutes, and finished strong after scoring late tries through Kin and Britz.

“You saw in that last 20 minutes, we executed exactly what we wanted to do,” said Sunwolves captain Ed Quirk. “As Filo said before, last year the Hurricanes had no points scored against them (from tries) in three rounds leading up to them winning the Super Rugby title.

“So for us in the last 20 minutes, especially with the scoreline, to regroup and put three tries on the defending champions is a good start. There were goods and bads, but the sun comes up tomorrow.”

The Sunwolves made a spirited start, but the Hurricanes soon took the wind out of their sails with a devastating early scoring blitz. First Ngani Laumape set up Ardie Savea to cross the line in the sixth minute, before Vince Aso collected his own chip forward to touch down two minutes later.

Savea and Ricky Riccitelli then added two more tries to give the Hurricanes a 24-0 lead with the game not even 15 minutes old, before scrum half TJ Perenara capped a lethal counterattack with another in the 21st minute.

All Black Julian Savea — the top try-scorer at the 2015 Rugby World Cup — then ran the length of the field to widen the Hurricanes’ lead, but the Sunwolves’ perseverance paid off when Viljoen pulled a try back in the 34th minute. South African referee Egon Seconds needed a TV replay to determine that Kenki Fukuoka’s pass to Viljoen was legal before the winger was tackled into touch, and the try stood.

“That’s the situation that I’m best in, but in Super Rugby the opposition won’t let you score from there easily,” said Fukuoka, who was making his Sunwolves debut. “I’m happy that I could keep the ball in play and get it to my teammate.”

Laumape brought the home side back down to earth with another Hurricanes try three minutes later, before Blade Thomson, Michael Fatialofa and Brad Shields added three more shortly after halftime.

Fatialofa, Aso and substitute Wes Goosen scored another three tries as the scoreboard steadily ticked upward toward 100 — a score never before achieved in Super Rugby — but the Sunwolves’ defense managed to shut down the visitors’ attack for the rest of the game and Kin and Britz salvaged some pride with tries in the 70th and 77th minutes.

“We could look at the scoreboard and yes, it was a big score,” said Tiatia, who next takes his team to Singapore for a “home” game against South Africa’s Kings on March 4. “The thing is, we’re trying to get better all the time, and there are lessons in life.

“Twelve guys made their Super Rugby debut today. What a fantastic moment. Awesome. I think we should be celebrating that.”